This is a graphic produced for a Nevada/Arizona website about Interstate 11.

State officials are trying to route a massive Canada-to-Mexico freeway project through Nevada to the Pacific Northwest, and local officials are trying to have it routed through the Truckee Meadows.

“The overall goal is [for Reno Sparks markets] to have access to Canada,” said state highway department spokesperson Scott Magruder. He said at the moment, though, most of the attention is on opening Phoenix markets to Las Vegas.

“These are the largest metropolitan areas west of the Mississippi that do not have a north/south interstate,” he said.

But not everyone is enamored of the project.

“I really loathe the idea of a new interstate highway through Nevada on many levels,” said Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada director Bob Fulkerson. “It’s a throwback to the ’50s when nobody gave a shit about habitat loss, migratory routes impacts, water and air pollution. Just mow over anything in the way of the highway, destroy anything else for the sake of the dollar bill. This looks like a freaking disaster in the making.”

In Arizona, where planning for the project is more advanced than in Nevada, there is considerable opposition.

“It would create new areas of population, destroying wild areas that don’t need to be developed at this point,” Sierra Club Rincon Group spokesperson Russell Lowes told a hearing in Tucson.

The Sparks City Council last month voted unanimously to support the freeway on a Truckee Meadows route. Councilmember Ron Smith said, “We need another north south connector,” and said the route would promote economic growth in the valley. Asked if he had looked at the impact on the ecology, he said he would expect the Nevada Wildlife Department and similar agencies to examine those issues.

Reno City Councilmember Jenny Brekhus suggested it is too early to commit to such a project about which so little is known, particularly because other highway projects, including a northwest connector, are more advanced in planning. She did say, however, that such a project, if completed, would relieve congestion on I-5 in California, though a Fernley-area route would be less disruptive of existing communities. And she said, “We have a big distribution industry here” in Washoe County that would benefit.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal has editorialized, “Unfortunately, Nevada has made its share of work on the I-11 project a decidedly low priority. That has to change. We must invest in our freeways so tourists can get here and commerce can come through here. Economic growth will follow. … At a time when our economy needs every bit of help it can get, infrastructure that can speed travel between these major markets would no doubt provide such help.”

BREKHUS

One southern activist said the newspaper is wrong that the state has made the project a low priority. Rather, she believes, the state has tried to keep the project low key and below the radar so the public will not become aroused as it did when the MX missile system—another project that involved huge swaths of construction across the state—was fought and defeated by residents.

It appears likely that the project, if approved, would require a gas tax hike in Clark County. If a similar levy were required in Washoe, Brekhus said, it would face rough sledding. “We’re taxed, I think, 23 cents on every gallon in Washoe County,” she said. “I would have a really hard time supporting a gas tax increase.”

Nevada highway federal programs manager Sondra Rosenberg said, “There’s no funding identified for any of this.”

Fulkerson directed attention to the fragile ecology of land between Las Vegas and Reno and north of Reno to the Oregon border.

“There are major environmental impacts when you put a small dirt road to bring a drill rig in for an exploratory project,” he said. “To talk about doing something an order of magnitude millions of time that size in the heart of Nevada, cutting off migratory bird routes, elk and antelope routes, would be a major disruption to the ecosystem for a make-work project and some corporate welfare for construction companies that are lining up their lobbies to get this done before the public knows about it. … We can’t go on paving over land, water and wildlife habitat so a handful of people can make a heck of a lot of money.”

A website funded jointly by the Nevada and Arizona highway departments contains language that critics say has an upbeat tone that suggests the proposed interstate is not being assessed, that officialdom has already decided the freeway should be built:

“I-11 is intended to be a new high-capacity, multimodal transportation facility connecting the metropolitan areas of Las Vegas and Phoenix. If extended north of Las Vegas and south of Phoenix, this facility has the potential to become a major north-south transcontinental corridor through the intermountain West.”

Rosenberg disputes the notion that the language means the decision has been made, though she conceded, “We do see a need for it. That’s why we’re doing the study.” Nevertheless, she said, “We are assessing.” (Italics represent her vocal emphasis.)

In April 2012, U.S. House members from Western states, including three Nevadans, signed a letter that said, “The completion of this corridor would provide total commerce connectivity between the United States, Mexico and Canada in the intermountain West, which is vital to the continued economic growth of the region. With increasing port developments in western Mexico and existing congestion on west coast transportation facilities, increased north-south capacity is a high priority and was designated as such in the 1991 Intermodal Surface Transportation Equity Act.” The Nevada signatories were Mark Amodei, Shelley Berkley and Joe Heck. An “Interstate 11 Caucus” was formed in the House that included all Nevada House members but five of nine Arizona members.

Fulkerson said the economic benefits will be for a narrow part of the community.

“The economic growth is not going to be spread out,” he said. “It’s going to be concentrated. The sacrifice and the impact doesn’t justify the cost.”

One concern of critics is “generated traffic,” also known as “induced demand,” that could add to Reno/Sparks congestion. It’s a phenomenon discovered in the 1960s, when construction or expansion of highways led to more people driving and more traffic congestion instead of less. It’s considered a contributor to urban sprawl.

The transportation and construction industries like to call it the myth of generated traffic, but traffic engineers try to anticipate its effects and plan for them. The Institute of Transportation Engineers defines it this way: “Generated traffic is the additional vehicle travel that results from a transportation improvement.”

In one California study, “60 percent to 90 percent of increased road capacity [was] filled with new traffic within five years. Total vehicle travel increased 1 percent for every 2 percent to 3 percent increase in highway lane miles. Researchers conclude, ’it appears that adding road capacity does little to decrease congestion because of the substantial induced traffic.’”

But Rosenberg said the impact on Truckee Meadows traffic is difficult to determine, given the fact that the route may not be through the Reno/Sparks area. Fernley is also a candidate route, she said, and whether there will be more or less congestion “will depend very much on where the specific alignment is and that’s way down the road.”

The I-11 issues echo some of those—commerce versus quality of life—that unfolded when planning for Interstate 80 was going on in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Businesspeople, particularly the casinos, wanted the freeway right through the center of town, alongside the railroad tracks, and most community leaders echoed them. U.S. Rep. Walter Baring led an effort that killed that “Third Street route” in an effort to move the freeway north of Reno to then-undeveloped areas, but the casinos regrouped and won approval of a “Seventh Street route” that was eventually constructed and put exit ramps near the casino district.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...